My adoption had never been a secret, but neither was it a spoken truth.
I hid in plain sight as an adoptee, but my family blurred the view with their own projections. We simply didn’t talk about it, mostly because to do so made them unravel; adoption being their Achilles heel: the one bruising weakness no amount of pretence could fix.
Emotions have never been a specialty for either of my parents, born as they were at the end of the 1940s. Like many baby boomers, they valued practicality, discipline and order above all else and, so they perceived all emotions, except anger, to be weak and indulgent.
People who showed emotions were regarded as ineffectual and feeble in as much as you cannot trust individuals who fail to keep themselves efficiently regulated. Maybe it’s representative of their generation, a distrust of feelings and the implied navel-gazing that ensues when one begins to explore their inner life, but my parents seemed to take it one step further and demand that no one else should entertain feelings either.
It’s tricky when you know you are adopted; your parents know you are adopted; even you brother knows you are both adopted and not biologically related to one another but it’s not something your parents wish to discuss. Harder still when you live in a home where the emotional temperature is set to a consistent and unchanging ‘cold,’ and any adopted-related questions are met with a look of slighted indignation that you would dare to ask such things.
For many years, I didn’t ask much about my birth mum, probably because I had fabricated my own story around her ghost and I much preferred my fiction. To me, she was a romantic Dickensian waif: young, beautiful and spirited, caught out by a puritanical society whose expectations she openly rejected. There was a sense of excitement and maybe even something radical and subversive about my mum, in my story, but of course, the reality was very different.
My story, whilst not unique, made me incredibly sad.
My mother, far from being a radical, had been browbeaten by society until she faltered and gave up. I didn’t feel angry or disappointed at her choices, they made perfect sense, but I did feel disappointed over the path my life took because of those choices.
When I met my mum years later, she knew very little about adoption. The social workers, all those years before, cranked out the usual trite nonsense “she’s going to a good family and will be loved and cared for” which obviously implied my mum wasn’t good enough and “now put all this behind you and get on with your life” as if giving up a child is like dropping a load of old clothes at the charity shop.
My mother thought I would keep my name, be told all about her as I grew up and see the photo she sent with me as soon as I was old enough to understand. None of this was true. Names were changed, I didn’t know much about her at all, and the photo, which my adopted mother repeatedly told me she had, was not given to me until my early twenties and even then, my mother made it clear I was lucky to have it at all as she wanted to tear it to pieces and burn it.
I can understand why she wanted to rip it up, but I’m glad she didn’t. We often want to destroy the cause of pain or dilute it, so it feels less intimidating, and it can often lead us to aggressively control our lives in such a way as to prevent any further wounds. The picture was such a wound. It hurt primarily because once I saw my mum, who I looked like as a teenager, my adopted mother could no longer keep up the pretence. Her narrative would be blown wide open and who would she be then?
She threw the picture at me, one night, when I came home from college. I caught it in my hand as I walked past her armchair. I came to a halt, standing very still, whilst inside a bewildering array of emotions stormed through every cell of my body.
The picture was face down on my palm. My hands shook, and tears rolled down my face. I remember asking why she had to throw it at me and why she couldn’t prepare me first and she said, ‘If I knew you would cry like this, I would have ripped it up.’
Having a picture of my mum, when I finally felt able to look, meant the world to me. It’s surprising what you can see in a face you don’t know. She had a soft, kind, open face and I knew instantly she was different from my parents. As an emotional person, it was reassuring to know my mum perhaps had feelings, too, and that sensitivity didn’t have to be supplanted for another more acceptable trait.
Of course, things did change between my adopted parents and especially, my mother. My mother, just like narcissus, liked her own reflection but more than this, she loved to see herself reflected back by those closest to her, especially her daughter, it made her feel more grounded and perhaps more real. When these reflections failed to materialize or turned to old shadows, she lashed out and I in turn simply drifted away from her, because falsehoods eventually become too heavy to bear.